Comparative Mythology

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COMPARATIVE MYTHOLOGY . An early form of comparative mythology is the so-called interpretatio Graeca, that is, the use of Greek names for gods of other peoples. Thus, for instance, Near Eastern storm gods were interpreted by Greek authors as Zeus, who shared essential features with them. Similarly, Roman authors identified Celtic or Germanic gods as Jupiter, Mars, or Mercury. Such identifications, employing interpretatio Romana, are readily apparent in the English and French names of the days of the week; the English names are derived from the Germanic gods, the French from the Roman: thus Tuesday, Týr's (or Tiu's) day, corresponds to mardi, day of Mars; Wednesday, Woden's day, corresponds to mercredi, day of Mercury; and Thursday, Thor's day, corresponds to jeudi, day of Jupiter.

As a technical term, comparative mythology was introduced in 1856 by the German-born British philologist F. Max Müller. He based his argument on the observation that the Indo-European languages were related to each other and obviously should be derived from one common language. Since, according to Müller, myths originated through literal interpretations of metaphoric expressions leading to a personification of such natural phenomena as the sun and the dawn, it would be useful to compare not only the languages but also the myths of Indo-European peoples. Strangely enough, he made little use of his observation for a comparison of divine names in the various religions; he was more interested in combating evolutionistic interpretations of mythology based on material from "primitive" peoples.

When two or more myths are similar in some respects, there are, roughly speaking, three possible theories. One is that they form part of a common heritage; another is that a myth or mythological motif has spread from one religion to another ("diffusion"); a third is that parallel, independent development has produced similar results in two or more different places. Following the third line of reasoning, we might assume one of two possible explanations: either that similar ecological conditions produce similar myths or that the human mind contains archetypes that are expressed in similar symbols everywhere. However, a combination of these two explanations should not be entirely ruled out.

Indo-European Religions

A common heritage can be assumed in the various Indo-European religions. Linguistic comparison of divine names reveals several interesting facts. For instance, the Vedic Dyaus corresponds to the Greek Zeus, the Roman Jupiter (Iovpater, "father Jove"), the Nordic Týr, and perhaps also the Latvian Dievs. Parjanya is an Indian rain god; the Baltic peoples have a god of the thunderstorm called Perkūnas or Pērkons, while Fjǫrgynn is a somewhat obscure Nordic god. In India, Yama is the first man, in Iran Yima, while Ymir in Nordic mythology is the giant from whose body the world was created. The relationship is especially close between Indian and Iranian religions. The Indian god Mitra corresponds to the Iranian Mithra, with very similar functions: Vedic mythology uses Vtrahan in the epithet of Indra as the killer of the dragon Vrtra; in Iran, Verethraghna is a god of war and kingship. The fact that Sanskrit deva means "god" but Iranian daiva is "demon," while Sanskrit asura means "demon" and Iranian ahura is the name of the highest god, indicates an early conflict between the two religions. It is worthy of notice that the functions of gods with related names are not always identical.

A different and more promising approach to the comparative mythology of the Indo-European peoples was suggested by the French scholar Georges Dumézil (18981986). He started from the observation that most Indo-European religions have a myth about the preparation of a drink of immortality, which was stolen and recovered and then became the object of ritual drinking. Continued researches, however, resulted in the observation that behind the mythology of most of these peoples a tripartite structure could be detected.

As a matter of fact, the gods of the pantheon are organized in such a manner that they reflect the tripartite social structure of Indo-European society. There are the functions of rulership, of warfare, and of fertility and wealth. The first function has two aspects: the mysterious and magical on one side and the orderly and lawful on the other. It is represented by Varua and Mitra in India, by Jupiter and Dius Fidius in Rome, and by Odin and Týr in Scandinavia. The warlike function is represented by Indian Indra, Roman Mars, and Scandinavian Thor. The gods of the third function are admitted to the circle of gods only after a battle, followed by a settlement, which makes the pantheon complete; they are, for instance, the Vedic twin gods Aśvins or Nāsatyas and the Nordic Vanir (Freyr, Freyja, etc.), while in Rome the lesser-known god Quirinus may belong here. Celtic evidence is scanty but can probably be fit into the same pattern. The same structure is reflected in the functions of the Zoroastrian "archangels," the Amesha Spentas, which replace the old gods in Zoroastrian monotheism, and in the characters of the legendary kings of early Rome. Thus Romulus represents the orderly ruler; Numa Pompilius, the priest, is the mysterious one; Tullus Hostilius is the warrior; and Ancus Marcius represents material welfare. It should also be noticed that the Sabinians were admitted into Roman society after a war, just as were the gods of the third function, and only then was the Roman community complete. In other words, mythology has been transformed into legendary history.

An interesting detail is the fact that of two Roman heroes in the wars against the Etruscans, one, Horatius Cocles, is one-eyed, and the other, Gaius Mucius Scaevola, loses his one hand. The Irish war god Nuadha has a silver hand instead of the one he lost in battle, and among the Nordic gods, Odin is one-eyed and Týr has only one arm.

That Greek mythology has only a few traces of this pattern is probably due to influence from pre-Greek Aegean religion. Dumézil's method is not primarily based on philological evidence and is thus not open to criticism based on difficulties in establishing the exact relationship between the Indo-European languages. On the other hand, there is a difficulty in the fact that the names of the gods of one particular function are not always linguistically related, and that related names may appear in different functions.

Near Eastern Mythologies

Comparison of Semitic mythologies can also be based in part on linguistic evidence. Il or el is in all Semitic languages (except Ethiopic) either the common word for "god" or the name of the highest god. But there are also problems. For instance, in South Arabia, Athtar is a god, perhaps connected with the morning star, but Babylonian and Assyrian Ishtar is a goddess, also connected with the morning star, while the early Canaanite texts from Ugarit know both a god Athtar and a goddess Athtart, the latter identical with the Astarte of the Old Testament. It may be assumed that an originally androgynous deity, perhaps a sky god (like Ethiopian Astar), has been differentiated in two directions as male and female. A similar shift of gender is known also in the case of the sun, sometimes worshiped as a male god (Babylonian Shamash), sometimes as a goddess (South Arabia, Ugarit). The male form in Babylonia may be due to Sumerian influence.

Three themes of ancient Near Eastern mythology are of particular interest here: (1) the dying and reviving god, (2) the killing of the dragon, and (3) death and immortality.

The dying and reviving god

The Sumerian god Dumuzi (Akkadian, Tammuz), the god of flocks and grain, is killed and carried to the netherworld, but it is finally decided that he shall spend part of the year on earth to promote fertility. Baal, the Canaanite god of thunder and fertility, is killed by his enemy Mot, and while he is dead, vegetation withers, but his sister Anat defeats Mot, and Baal is finally restored to life. The story of Aqhat seems to reflect the same pattern: Aqhat is offered immortality by the goddess Anat in exchange for his fine bow but refuses and is killed, which results in the withering of vegetation. His sister seeks him, but here the tablet is broken, and we do not know the outcome. If the point of the story is man's mortality, we should expect him to remain dead; if the vegetation motif is predominant, as in the Baal myth, it is likely that he was revived.

The Egyptian Osiris is somewhat different: he is king and connected with the grain; he is killed by his brother Seth, but his wife Isis finds his dismembered body and restores it to life, and Osiris becomes the ruler of the dead. We know that the god's death and resurrection were celebrated in seasonal festivals. Different again is the Hittite myth of Telepinu: he disappears and vegetation withers and procreation fails; he is found sleeping and brought back, and life returns to normal.

There is a common pattern in these myths, probably reflecting the vicissitudes of vegetation in the seasonal cycle, but the actual form of the myth differs from country to country insofar as the common features have been combined with local elements to form a new unity. The problem is further complicated by the fact that some of the characteristic elements of the pattern reappear in connection with the Nordic god Baldr, who is supposed to be invulnerable but is killed with the only weapon that can hurt him, namely, a twig of mistletoe. Baldr, however, remains dead, though nearly everything weeps for him. Dumézil has found a parallel to this myth among the Ossets, a tribe in the Caucasus, probably descended from the ancient Scythians. Here the willful Syrdon finds out the only way to kill the supposedly invulnerable Soslan (or Sosryko). In both myths Dumézil finds traits that point to some connection with the rites of the summer solstice. It is not clear whether we have here a case of the migration of myths or an example of common Indo-European heritage.

Furthermore, in the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, we are told that the hero Lemminkäinen was killed by means of an inconspicuous plant. His mother found him, reassembled the parts of his body, and brought him back to life. Here is an element that is strongly reminiscent of the Osiris myth. It is also interesting that a bee plays a significant role at the resuscitation of Lemminkäinen, just as a bee wakes up the Hittite Telepinu. It is hard to prove any historical connection among the three myths involved, but it seems that elements from different sources have been combined into a new story.

The killing of the dragon

In the Babylonian epic of creation the god Marduk kills a monster, Tiamat, representing the primeval ocean, and creates the world out of her body. In Canaanite myth where Baal kills Prince Sea, the result is not creation but the establishment of his rulership and the building of a temple. There are also fragments in Canaanite mythology that tell of the killing of a being called Lotan or tannin ("dragon"). Reminiscences of the battle motif are also found in the Old Testament in connection with creation. The defeated party is here called either Leviathan (Lotan) and tannin or tehom ("the deep"; i.e., Tiamat). The elements of the myth recur, but they are combined differently. Since the motif is absent in the Sumerian myths of creation, it may be of West Semitic origin. The enemy slain is the sea, but the results differ.

Death and immortality

The hero of the Gilgamesh epic, seeking eternal life, finds the "plant of life," but it is snatched away by a serpent, and he remains mortal. In another Babylonian myth, Adapa is offered the "food of life" but he refuses to eat it and remains mortal. In the Old Testament, Adam and Eve have access to the "tree of life" but are deprived of it through a serpent and are henceforth mortal. The problem is the same: why is man mortal? The symbols of eternal life differplant, food, treebut the result is the same. In other words, the intention of the myth is the same in all three cases, but the concrete expressions differ.

To sum up: myths intend to answer existential questions; the symbols used are sometimes identical, sometimes differing in details; and mythical motifs can be combined in different ways in different contexts.

Mythologies of Other Cultures

Similar observations can be made in comparative study of mythologies in many other parts of the world. Three mythic themes provide interesting examples: (1) the origin of death, (2) the earth diver, and (3) the flood.

The origin of death

In most parts of Africa there is a myth of the origin of death. Common to most of them is the idea that man was originally intended to live forever. God sent a message to that effect, but the messenger was delayed and overtaken by another messenger, who brought the message of death. Other myths report that the message was distorted so as to imply death instead of life. Other tribes say that man was offered two bundles, one containing life, the other death; by mistake, man chose death. There are also myths that ascribe death to the disobedience of man. In the last case, one might suspect Christian influence, but the other myths, which occur in several versions in several tribes, are certainly indigenous and provide a good example of how the outward form of a myth may vary, though the intention is the same.

The earth diver

Creation myths among many North American Indian tribes tell of a primeval sea: a bird or animal dives into the water and brings up some soil from which the earth is created. This myth of the earth diver is known also from several peoples in Northeast Asia. It has the idea of the primeval sea in common with Babylonian, Israelite, and, to some extent, Egyptian cosmogony; but is any historical relationship possible? Such relationship does exist, however, between North America and Northeast Asia. In some North Asian versions of the earth-diver myth, the motif is combined, rather illogically, with the myth of the great flood. According to one Samoyed myth, seven men who have been saved from the flood send a bird to the bottom of the sea to fetch a turf to form the earth. This is obviously a combination of two elements of different origin.

The flood

The myth of the flood, on the other hand, is a problem in its own right. It is well known from the Bible and from ancient Mesopotamia. A study of the biblical and the three Mesopotamian versions reveals that they have several conspicuous details in common (the god reveals the secret of the coming flood to one righteous man, he builds a ship, he sends out birds to see if the water has receded, and he offers sacrifices after being saved); but it can be shown that the story has been modified in each case to suit the context of a larger narrative complex into which it has been inserted (Gilgamesh epic, Atrahasis epic, the primeval history of Genesis ). But flood stories are known from many other parts of the world, both in Asia and in North and South America. Have they originated independently in areas where large rivers cause inundations from time to time, or is there any kind of connection? The latter alternative can be proved in the ancient Near East, but the other stories show differences too great to make direct borrowing likely.


Thus, comparative study of mythology raises questions that are difficult to answer. Similar myths appearing in different parts of the world seem to have no communication with one another. Neither common heritage nor diffusion seems probable. Myths that are strikingly similar to the Greek myth of Orpheus, who tried to bring his wife, Eurydice, back from the netherworld but failed to do so, appear in several North American Indian tribes, but no historical connection can be shown. Is it possible that such a characteristic myth can develop independently in two distant places? The New Zealand Maori are reported to have a creation myth, according to which there was first darkness and water, but the god Io pronounced a word and there was light, he pronounced a second word and the sky came into being, and a third word and the earth was there. In this case, it seems likely that Christian ideas have influenced either the myth or the one who recorded it. But in other cases we may ask if there is not some truth in Jung's theory of archetypes in the human mind whereby similar existential questions are answered by similar symbols. Or, as Mircea Eliade puts it in a somewhat different terminology, essential aspects of reality appear in the human mind as images and symbols forming certain patterns that meet a need and fulfill a function, that of revealing the hidden modalities of our existence.

A new approach to the study of myth has been suggested by the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss. He breaks down the myth into small units and analyzes their mutual relationships. The units are meaningful only in terms of the positions they occupy in the total structure of the myth and in the context of the culture concerned. Thus there emerges a pattern consisting of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In the myth of Oedipus, for instance, there is an overvaluation of kinship (e.g., Oedipus marries his mother), an undervaluation of kinship (e.g., Oedipus kills his father), and a synthesis implying that contradictory kinship relations are contradictory in a similar way. In analyzing a specific myth, Lévi-Strauss often explains the significance of a unit by adducing comparative material from the same culture, but only in the third volume of his Mythologiques does he bring in a global perspective.

See Also

Comparative Religion; Cosmogony; Death; Dragons; Dying and Rising Gods; Grimm Brothers; Indo-European Religions, article on History of Study; Müller, F. Max; Myth; Myth and Ritual School.


Max Müller's essay "Comparative Mythology" is found in the second volume of Chips from a German Workshop (London, 1868). Together with Åke Ström, I have reviewed the comparative work done in Indo-Iranian and Indo-European studies in Religions of Mankind Yesterday and Today (Philadelphia, 1967). In Arische Religion (Leipzig, 1914), Leopold von Schroeder deals with the same material.

Georges Dumézil sets forth his theories in many places. Several general introductions are available: L'idéologie tripartie des Indo-Européens (Brussels, 1958), L'héritage indo-européen à Rome (Paris, 1949), and Les dieux des Indo-Européens (Paris, 1952).

My own observations on the comparative mythology of the ancient Near East are published in numerous places: "Remarks on the Method of Comparative Mythology," in Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright, edited by Hans Goedicke (Baltimore, 1971); "Israel's Place among the Religions of the Ancient Near East," in Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 23 (1972): 18; and "The Impact of the Ancient Near East on Israelite Tradition," in Tradition and Theology in the Old Testament, edited by D. A. Knight (Philadelphia, 1977). For a treatment of Athtar and related deities, consult my Word and Wisdom (Lund, 1947), and for a discussion of dying and reviving gods, it is valuable to look at the classic work by James G. Frazer that has been edited by Theodor H. Gaster and published as The New Golden Bough, abr. ed. (1959; London, 1980).

African myths about the origins of death are the subject of Hans Abrahamsson's The Origin of Death (Uppsala, 1951). Anna Birgitta Rooth has published the article "Creation Myths of North American Indians," Anthropos 52 (1957): 497508, and Åke Hultkrantz sets forth his views on Orpheus traditions among Native Americans in The North American Indian Orpheus Tradition (Stockholm, 1957). Flood stories are dealt with by Richard Andree in Die Flutsagen (Braunschweig, 1891) and also by Ruth E. Simoons-Vermeer in "The Mesopotamian Flood Stories: A Comparison and Interpretation," Numen 21 (1974): 1734. For an introduction to the theories of Lévi-Strauss and structuralism, see two works by Edmund Leach: The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism (London, 1967) and Lévi-Strauss (London, 1970).

New Sources

Doniger, Wendy. Other Peoples' Myths: The Cave of Echoes. 1988; reprint, Chicago, 1995.

Doniger, Wendy. "Myths and Methods in the Dark." Journal of Religion 76 (October 1996): 531537.

Doniger, Wendy. Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India. Chicago, 1999.

Doty, William. Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals. 1986; reprint, Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2000.

Golden, Kenneth, ed. Uses of Comparative Mythology: Essays on the Work of Joseph Campbell. New York, 1992.

Napier, David. Foreign Bodies: Performance, Art, and Symbolic Anthropology. Berkeley, 1992.

Worthen, Thomas. The Myth of Replacement: Stars, Gods, and Order in the Universe. Tucson, Ariz., 1991.

Helmer Ringgren (1987)

Revised Bibliography